Strained vs. Sprained: What’s the Difference

Strain vs. Sprain

The human body has an awesome ability to handle physical stress. The process of breaking down tissue and building it back up makes you stronger. By pushing your body beyond its limits, you gain the ability to run faster, jump higher, swim further, and perform better. 

But you can push it too far. When soft tissue is overworked, it can result in a strain or sprain. 

Strains and sprains can happen anywhere while doing almost anything.

  • Performing manual labor
  • Playing sports
  • During a workout
  • Doing household chores

What Causes a Strain?

A strain is an injury to a muscle or tendon. It comes from overworking a muscle group, which tears the tissue. The most common areas of muscle and tendon strains are the hamstrings and the back.

A strain can happen a number of ways:

  • Lifting or carrying heavy objects
  • Improper lifting and carrying, even if the object isn’t very heavy
  • Sudden movements when muscles and tendons are too tight
  • Overstretching a muscle group
  • Overuse of muscle groups. Tennis elbow and jumper’s knee are examples of tendon strains from overuse

Symptoms of Strains

  • Pain
  • Swelling
  • Muscle weakness
  • Muscle spasms
  • Inflammation
  • Hindered muscle movement

Preventing Strains

Injuries like strains and sprains can keep you from playing sports that you love. Even worse, they can cause you to lose wages because you’re unable to do your job at work. But it’s a good thing that just a little preventative care can help you avoid debilitating injuries.

  • Use the proper lift and carry techniques.
    • When lifting, don’t bend at the waist. 
    • Stand where the object you’re picking up is directly in front of you.
    • Lower your body to a squatting position with your back straight. 
    • Use your legs to lift your body and the object. Warning – If you try to lift more than you’re able, you can still injure yourself. So if it’s too heavy, get someone to help.
    • Carry the object close to your body.
    • If you need to turn to place the object on a shelf or table, don’t twist your torso at the waist. Instead, turn your whole body to face in the direction you need.
  • Always warm-up before strenuous activities like exercise, playing sports, or doing manual labor.
  • In cold temperatures, wear protective clothing. Cold air tightens muscles, making them vulnerable to strains.
  • Maintain a healthy weight.

Treatment for Strains

When you strain a muscle or tendon, it’s best to let it rest. Use the acronym R.I.C.E. —

  • Rest the injured area
  • Ice the area to reduce swelling.
  • Compress the strained area with an Ace bandage.
  • Elevate the strained portion of your body.

Take a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) such as aspirin, ibuprofen, or acetaminophen (Tylenol).

If the pain and swelling don’t improve or if they get worse over 48 hours, you’ll need to see a doctor.

What Causes a Sprain?

A sprain can be caused by twisting a joint or having a joint forced out of the socket. This stretches or tears the ligaments that keep the bones together. The most common sprains are of the ankle and wrist.

Symptoms of a Sprain

  • Pain
  • Swelling
  • Limited ability to move the joint

Preventing Sprains

The prevention measures for strains apply also to sprains. Here are a few especially for sprains:

  • Wear proper-fitting shoes.
  • If you work around oil and grease, put on footwear with oil-resistant soles.
  • If you have to walk on ice and snow, wear ice cleats.
  • Be sure of your footing, especially if you’re walking or running on uneven or rocky ground.

Treatment for Sprains

You treat a sprain the same way as a strain. Just remember the acronym R.I.C.E., and take an NSAID according to directions.

See a doctor if you have severe symptoms:

  • Numbness in the injured area.
  • Redness near the injury.

Most minor sprains and strains heal in a few days. But if your injuries are severe, or they don’t improve, we’re here to help.

Are you suffering from a strain or sprain? Start your diagnosis with our Condition Assessment Tool.